Why are we so obsessed with dystopias?
Dystopias are all the rage these days. From zombie-infested country towns to post-apocalyptic authoritarian states, parallel universe Nazified America, to post-global warming alternate realities. Alien invaded Earths, vampire bloodbath cattle farms, you name it, if you can think of an earth shattering mega-carnage dystopian world, then it's probably on Netflix.
But why? Why are we so obsessed with dystopias? Well, perhaps it's because we are living in one, and it makes it just a little more bearable if you create a mirrored reflection of reality that is really just a bed time scary-story. Just make-believe. Don't worry darling, there's no such thing as bloodsucking world-dominating vampires willing to gorge on defenceless victims and turn them into mindless minions for their psychotic overlords. Is there?
When you're on the brink of global meltdown, looking into the steely, half-dead shark eyes of Theresa May sending us all down to post-Brexit-hell, or a Trumped up, demonically possessed toupee with a fat little finger on the big red button, where better to numb your barely concealed horror of impending doom than in a good old fashioned box-set binge?
This dystopia business isn't new though, you know? We've been creating fiction this close to reality for a long time. One of the earliest dystopian novels in the western cannon is The Last Man, by Mary Shelley. First published in 1826, The Last Man is set in a post-apocalyptic future world where humanity is on the brink of extinction from a deadly plague. It inspired a whole genre of grim future realities, not least the most excellent post-apocalyptic comic series, Y: The Last Man, by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra.
In fact, modern man has had a mild obsession with the coming apocalypse for thousands of years. In his book, Apocalypse, A History of the End of Time, John Michael Greer argues that the first apocalyptic vision on record came from the Zoroastrians, somewhere between 1500 and 1200 BCE. Zarathustra, the worlds' first apocalyptic (and monotheistic) prophet, had a vision in which he was visited by the one true god, plus a host of accompanying spirits, who would have an all-powerful battle in the heavens, which would destroy the Earth and from the ashes of the old world, a better, cleaner world would emerge. Ringing any bells? Yep, this is the basis of pretty much every structured religion that has followed it, the Great Flood perhaps being the closest to home.
I find it totally fascinating that there are certain apocalyptic narratives that seem to be hard-wired into the human brain. Perhaps it comes from a primal, instinctive memory of a cataclysmic event, early in human existence…
Ok, I may be straying away a little from the land of dystopia. And utopia. Which is, of course, the identical, disgustingly optimistic symbiotic twin of dystopia. In every dystopia, there's a utopia, and vice versa, that's what Margaret Atwood says anyway.
there is something rather disturbing about us imagining dystopian worlds as fantastical places that don't really exist
So, let's just be clear for a moment and do a little glossary…
Apocalypse = Global mega-destruction
Post-apocalypse = The remnants of humanity after global mega-destruction
Dystopia = An imaginary place where everything is shit, usually preceded by global-mega-destruction
Utopia = An imaginary place where everything is perfect, usually followed by global-mega-destruction
You see, they are all intrinsically linked and I'm not completely meandering around the topic.
And you can probably also see that I am obsessed with this particular subject.
Always have been. Ever since I was ten years old, when I learnt how to set the timer on the video machine and could record a seemingly infinite amount of terrifying late night movies and quietly watch them on Saturday mornings before anyone was up. Scarred for life.
I think the first truly dystopian movie I saw was Mad Max Beyond Thunder Dome. It was so frightening. To imagine what our world might become. And also, strangely intoxicating.
That's sick, isn't it? That we turn this fear into entertainment. Get the endorphins going. A good bit of action. Get the popcorn out.
The more I think about it, the more I realise there is something rather disturbing about us imagining dystopian worlds as fantastical places that don't really exist, when there are millions of people living in nightmarish conditions all over the world, in war zones, without food or water, constantly in fear of their lives, packing up all their possessions and leaving their homes and loved ones for a chance of finding a way out, to safety. I wonder what people in Damascus would think if Mad Max Beyond Thunder Dome came on the television for a moment before the world's glorious leaders bring down more of the real apocalypse on these innocent people?
Wait, I am being grossly unfair to dystopian fiction. Dystopias are far more than depressing fairytales or privileged fantasies of nightmare land. Like all good science fiction, true dystopias are mirrors to our world right now, a way to look at ourselves, our shadow selves, the dark that settles on society as it sleeps. Dystopias shake us, slap us around the face. Wake up! Look around you. Your world is tumbling into an abyss, change it, before it is too late.
Our British dystopia is subtle. Our overlords are clever. And manipulative. And usually invisible. Our dystopia keeps people hungry, relying on food banks to survive, whilst others drink the finest of wines and the tastiest meats. Our dystopia is closing its gates, reinforcing its battlements against the impending horde of those most in need. Our dystopia is brain-washing its people, using that age-old tool of scapegoating and the toxic tendrils of hate to turn us against one another.
But wait, what was it that Margaret Atwood said? That in every dystopia there is a utopia? Remember, these stories, these narratives, they are hard-wired in us. Utopias have been there from the start. They can teach us. About hope. About strength. About compassion. About the human spirit. As HG Wells put it so beautifully…The Sleeper Wakes. Well perhaps, dear reader, this is our time. To wake and shake the earth with our boots. To break this impending nightmare. To break down our real dystopia.
Dom Coyote is performing Songs for the End of the Worldat Theatre Royal Brighton, Tuesday 16th May (as part of Brighton Festival).
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